Plaintiffs in cannabis lawsuit drop claim that the LDS Church orchestrated the replacement of Prop 2

FILE - This March 22, 2019 file photo shows a bud on a marijuana plant at Compassionate Care Foundation's medical marijuana dispensary in Egg Harbor Township, N.J. U.S. retail sales of cannabis products jumped to $10.5 billion last year, a threefold increase from 2017, according to data from Arcview Group, a cannabis investment and market research firm. The figures do not include retail sales of hemp-derived CBD products. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

Patient advocates who are suing over the state’s decision to replace a voter-approved medical marijuana initiative have ditched one of their central legal arguments — that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was pulling the strings behind the scenes.

The original lawsuit filed in December accused the Legislature of abridging the rights of voters to appease the church, which the plaintiffs say has an unconstitutional grip on Utah’s government.

But attorney Rocky Anderson, who’s representing Together for Responsible Use and Education and the Epilepsy Association of Utah in the case, said his clients are abandoning that claim because proving it would’ve required a laborious and expensive fact-finding process.

A revised complaint submitted Friday focuses instead on the argument that lawmakers flouted the will of voters by replacing Proposition 2 with a medical cannabis bill of their own design. The updated version also contends that the cannabis bill conflicts with federal law because it requires state employees to distribute medical cannabis from local health departments.

House Bill 3001 passed by the Utah Legislature, ironically enough, requires these departments and all of these people to set up what, under federal law, is a felonious, full-service drug cartel,” Anderson, a former Salt Lake City mayor, said Friday afternoon.

Even though the legal arguments have changed, Anderson says the suit’s goal remains the same: To reinstate Prop 2 as the law of the land.

Connor Boyack, an architect of the cannabis legislation being challenged by the lawsuit, said the complaint has been drained of any substance without the arguments about undue church influence.

“They’re dropping what’s really been their biggest complaint all along, and so I think this lawsuit went from a Hail Mary to a nothingburger,” said Boyack, founder of the libertarian Libertas Institute.

A church spokesman had no comment on Friday’s legal development.

However, in a recent motion to dismiss, attorneys with the Utah attorney general’s office argued that the church was simply exercising its First Amendment rights in lobbying on medical cannabis. The fact that LDS Church officials tried to bargain with advocates demonstrates that they don’t wield absolute power, the filing argued.

“If the Church dominated the State, it would not seek to negotiate with Plaintiffs and others holding different views in hope of reaching a compromise. It wouldn’t have to,” the state’s attorneys wrote.

Utah lawmakers passed HB3001 in a December special session held just a couple days after the cannabis initiative took effect. The bill was designed as a compromise between cannabis advocates, the LDS Church, lawmakers and the medical community, but many patients believed it was a capitulation to enemies of Prop 2 and argued it would restrict access to marijuana treatments.

The voter initiative would’ve relied on dozens of private dispensaries to get medical marijuana into the hands of patients. The replacement bill, by contrast, allows for only seven private cannabis pharmacies. The rest of the distribution would be handled by a state-run central fill pharmacy that would send marijuana shipments to local health departments for pickup by patients.

The amended complaint says involving public employees in cannabis distribution could mean consequences for state and local governments, such as "the forfeiture of millions of dollars in federal grants.”

However, even if a judge agrees that state distribution is illegal, Boyack says the rest of HB3001 will remain in place thanks to a clause that protects the entire law from being overturned based on a single flaw.

The updated suit also contains a lengthy list of ways the replacement bill is more onerous and restrictive than Prop 2. For instance, the bill removed autoimmune disorders as a qualifying condition for medical cannabis and does not allow patients in remote areas to grow their own cannabis.